Perhaps the most shocking thing about students having sex in a high school auditorium was that other students didn't find it very shocking at all.
"I glanced over and, whatever, I just let him continue on with his business," said a 16-year-old linebacker on the Osbourn High School football team who, along with a friend, stumbled upon a couple engaging in oral sex. "I stayed for five to eight minutes, just talking. We weren't worried about it. When the janitor came in, everyone started running."
Manassas school officials weren't as laid back. The students -- eight in all -- were quickly identified and suspended, and the matter prompted the small school system to confront an issue many adults would rather not face: in this case, two girls and three boys engaging in oral sex or intercourse on school property while three other boys watched, according to sources familiar with what happened.
"In all the years that I've been in education, I've never run into this one before," said John Boronkay, the school system's acting superintendent. "It's a new one."
Actually, it's not so new. According to some teenagers, sex on school property is more frequent than adults might imagine. And some adults who work with teenagers said it's happening more often these days.
There's anecdotal evidence to support that:
Two students were discovered recently having sex in an Anne Arundel County high school gym. Four students at Col. Zadok Magruder High in Rockville were arrested in June after performing sex acts in the school parking lot. A boy and a girl at Springbrook High in Silver Spring were caught "touching inappropriately" in a school bathroom. Last year, three teenage boys at Mount Hebron High in Howard County were arrested after a student accused them of sexually assaulting her in a school restroom, but charges were dropped after the boys said the sex was consensual and the girl recanted.
"Students would have intercourse on the stairwells, locked classrooms, in the locker rooms," said Ihsan Musawwir, 18, a recent graduate of Dunbar Senior High School in the District. "It was embarrassing for me to walk in on it."
Jessica Miller, 19, who graduated in June from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, said that for some students there, sex on campus is a popular fantasy -- and sometimes a reality -- particularly in the auditorium.
"It's so big, it's so dark," Miller said. "There's a lot more places to find privacy -- behind the stage and on the catwalk."
But what's the appeal? "Just being rebellious," she said. "Coming back to class and saying, 'Ooh, guess what I just did? I just had sex in the auditorium.' "
Deborah Roffman, a Baltimore-based sexuality educator, said she has been hearing more about similar occurrences in the past five years. "Schools are calling me, asking, 'What do we do? We've had this incident at our school.' "
Thrill of getting caught
The fact that teenagers have sex is well established: Roughly half of all 15- to 19-year-olds have had vaginal intercourse, and more than half have had oral sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But getting a handle on the reasons students are emboldened to risk having sex at school is as tricky as figuring out how many are doing it. Musawwir, the Dunbar graduate, who has helped lead teen forums on sex, said she thinks students have sex in school because they have nowhere else to go. "And it's the thrill of getting caught or not. And the media has a lot of things to do with it. They think that if they see it on TV, they can get away with it in real life."
For example, the popular movie "Mean Girls" -- a comedy about clique warfare in high school -- showed a girl in a bra and skirt making out with a guy in briefs in the school auditorium's projection room.
Cpl. Michael Rudinski, president of the Maryland Association of School Resource Officers, said teenagers do whatever they think their peers are doing, whether they are or not. "The thing about young people is when they see things in the mass media and they think it's going on, they start doing it."
A 16-year-old who said she is friends with one of the girls at Osbourn who was suspended said the episode wasn't surprising. "It wasn't that big of a deal," she said. But she said her friend "regrets what she did. She knows it wasn't a smart thing to do. But everybody whispering about her doesn't help."
Not all teenagers accept such incidents as "no big deal." A few nights after the Osbourn news broke, students from T.C. Williams, standing in a drizzle to cheer on a girls field hockey game, pronounced it "weird" and "embarrassing."
"What do you call it -- orgies?" 17-year-old senior Emilie Jackson said, giggling as she tried to come up with the word. "They don't happen. That's not normal teenage behavior."
"I would just wonder, like, what's going through their heads -- like, 'Okay, guys, let's meet at 3:30 behind the curtain?' " she said.
Adults struggle to respond
It can be hard to police everything that goes on at school, especially after hours, when club meetings, sports practices and rehearsals take place. In many schools, hall monitors and other adults stay late to make sure students are there for legitimate reasons.
But even adults do not always know how to handle the sex issue. An Anne Arundel teacher said he found two students having sex last year on the wrestling mats in a high school auxiliary gym. The teacher, who declined to be named, said he didn't report the couple because he was worried about repercussions for them -- or himself.
"I've seen and heard situations when you don't have support. These stories come back and kick you in the face," said the teacher, who is in his thirties.
He said he doesn't think an adult's word is worth as much as it used to be. "Kids have a voice or whatever, which is great, but at the same time, you see [teachers] who step up and say something and they get mashed."
Many schools don't have rules specifically banning sex on campus but punish students who do it through a clause prohibiting "immoral conduct" or behavior that offends the community's morals, said Naomi Gittins, a staff attorney at the National School Boards Association. Gittins added that more specific policies would make it easier for schools to defend themselves against legal challenges.
After the janitor reported the Sept. 28 incident at Osbourn High, school officials checked security cameras and identified eight students who had entered the auditorium. The three who watched were suspended for five days; the others for 10. One of the two girls claimed she was coerced, but police did not find enough evidence to file charges.
School administrators are drafting a rule that bans sex on school property.
Some students at Osbourn noted a double standard among their schoolmates, saying the girls involved were being called "sluts" and "whores" while the boys faced censure mostly because some felt they had jeopardized the football team.
"I don't think any of the guys [in school] really admired any of the people involved," said Tim Blank, 18, a senior on the Osbourn football team and an editor on the school paper. He said his teammates were angry with the male participants, all of whom were on the team, because they were top players and their suspensions threatened the season.
"We had gone through three years of hard times, [and] we finally got off to a hot start," Blank said.
'Why are they surprised?'
Parents complained that they did not hear from the Manassas School Board about the auditorium incident until nearly three weeks later in a letter.
"I was waiting for some type of communication from the school," said Cindy Brookshire, 51, a parent who heard about the incident from her son. "Nothing came out except rumors."
Arthur P. Bushnell, the School Board chairman, said board members waited to inform parents until it was clear what the punishments would be.
Some parents said the matter got them talking to their children in discussions they might not have at Osbourn, where, according to the school system's director of instructional services, Sandy Thompson, health classes focus on abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases but not condoms or contraception.
Miller, the T.C. Williams graduate, said she didn't understand why adults were so shocked. "Our parents are the ones who had the sexual revolution, so why are they surprised?"
Parents at Osbourn said what happened in the auditorium went far beyond their own teenage activities, and some added that they were confident that their children would not get involved in such an incident.
"Maybe I'm a naive parent," said Ted Hauffe, whose son, Daniel, is on the football team, "but I will say my kid would never participate" in group sex.
As to warning teenagers off sex, he said, "You can preach that as a parent, and hopefully they will listen to you, but when it comes to that particular moment of passion, what are you going to do?"
Blank's father, Bryan Blank, said that compared with when he was young, "Society is more open. You see two women kissing on MTV. You have things talked about, like 'straight versus gay.' "
Asked whether the incident related to any cultural trend or had any deeper meaning, a group of boys watching the T.C. Williams field hockey game scoffed. "It means there's eight weirdos around," said Alex Haitsuka,17, a junior.
"I'd become very unaroused" at the sight, he added. "Nine hundred out of 901 people would not want to be involved."
Matt Killeen, 18, a senior, said he also found it shocking.
"Can't you just wait till you're at home?" he asked.
Staff writers Maria Glod, Daniel Lyght, Theola S. Labbe and Ylan Mui and researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.